Conversations in Light in a series in which two photographers discuss Light as it related to the photographer. This post shares how Sean Arbabi and Jennifer Wu see and use light in their photography. Come, read and get your photography Inspired by light.
Each of you has a passion for outdoor photography, but your images demonstrate the importance of being aware of light. Why does that matter?
Arbabi: When I started at Brooks Institute, I immediately discovered that nature photography was my love, but I realized I wanted to also be a solid, all-around photographer and the only way to do that was to learn lighting. So, when I started doing more commercial work, everything that I had learned when photographing in the outdoors, I applied to my commercial work. I developed an understanding of how to bring in supplemental light and be able to do it well. You can’t just place a light anywhere. It has to be placed in a position that does something.
Wu: Continuing from what Sean was saying, it’s really about the subtleties of light and different aspects of modifying the light. And in my work, I am constantly modifying the light with the use of reflectors and fill flash. If I have a mountain in the background and flowers in the foreground, the flowers are going to be in shade, while the sunrise or sunset is just hitting the peaks of the mountains. So, to fill in the shade I will use flash and add a warming gel so that it doesn’t look too cool and will match that warm light of the sun. I’m trying to make it look natural, because I don’t want it to look as if it’s a fake image.
Arbabi: When you place a second, third, or fourth light, you really have to be aware of how it’s going to affect the scene because we don’t normally see three, four, or five lights in everyday life. So, you have to make it look somewhat realistic and that takes a lot of experience and practice.
What you are talking about is developing a sensibility about light, rather than the specific technical things. How does one develop that kind of awareness to light?
Arbabi: I don’t see lighting as a cookie–cutter situation where you just plug in exposure settings. In most situations, you can’t just plug in an exposure of 1/125 at f/5.6 and always expect it to work for you. I think that when you learn the basics of exposure and you learn how to meter, you begin to understand why you are making mistakes. You begin to understand the relationship that photography has with light, because you understand the limits of exposure on your imaging sensor, which is about 5–7 stops. So, when you have a disadvantage like that, you learn how to take advantage of that limitation, and I think that’s a big part of success in photography.
Wu: I agree with Sean. We can see this huge contrast range, but the camera doesn’t. So, understanding your camera and exposure allows you to understand when things will blow out or to visualize the other subtleties of light, such as color temperature, where our brains automatically color correct for us. I recommend to my students to begin by learning the basic types of light and understand the differences between soft light, front light, side light, and then color temperature to see the color of light and get an understanding of those key things.
Arbabi: Yes, you have to have an understanding of the different types of light. That provides you an important starting point.
Wu: And keep looking and evaluating the light, even when you’re not making photographs. When you’re going down to the grocery store, just make it a habit to look at and evaluate light. Imagine what it might look like if you did make a photograph. Would the sky be blown out here or are we in shade where we would have some soft light?
How does your awareness of light dictate where you go to make a photograph and how do you deal with it when the light isn’t particularly ideal?
Wu: Light is key. The light is either going to make the scene very compelling or really dull. I’m going to be watching the weather and using the elements of the weather in combination with the light to create an image. When I go to a location, all the elements may not have come together—it’s too windy or the sun goes behind the cloudbank. So I might go to a location during the day and scout it out and then come back and hopefully the right conditions arethere, and if they’re not then I might goback again and again until something happens, until all the elements of thelight and the weather come together to make a compelling image. Sometimes, it’s not just about going once, but coming again and again until a time when the light works.
Arbabi: It’s all going to depend on what I’m shooting. As Jenny mentioned earlier, it’s about considering the qualities of light. For example, I was on a boat in the Virgin Islands. We were shooting under storm conditions and we had to get the models in sunlight conditions. So, we set up a softbox to light their faces whenever they were backlit or side lit to put a little more light onto their faces, and we sat there spinning around in this enclosed harbor until the sunlight came out. We metered it quickly and shot, shot, shot. And when the sun went away, we stopped and waited for it as we set up different scenes. And when we set up those scenes, the light might have been dull and gloomy, but I was imagining what it would look like in direct sunlight, and that only comes from experience.
When a photographer begins to use [external flashes], it’s for situations when there isn’t enough light, but what do you each think about when you introduce [external flashes] or electronic strobe into the scenario?
Arbabi: So the first thing that I would start off with is set up a situation and learn where the shadows are, or set up my models in shadows so that I can control the level of shadows by the use of flash. I’ll meter for the sunlight, but I will light my models and try to balance that sunlight with my strobe. I already have my light source, which is the sun, and I’ll try to use that to my advantage. I’ll decide whether I want to use it as a hair light or use it as a key light, and then I use the flash to fill in the shadows. I am always thinking of flash as a way of controlling what happens with my shadows, as a means of cutting the contrast.
Jenny, you’re famous for your star-scapes but you are often illuminating your foreground with supplementary lights, right?
Wu: For using additional light with a night scene where there are stars in the background and I’m trying to include an interesting foreground—a lake, a tree, a ridgeline or even people—I’ve tried using strobe, but even at 1/64 power the flash was still quite strong, given the high ISO I’m often shooting at. So, I’ve used a headlamp, which produces a slight bluish color cast, or the warm light from a household flashlight. Having that warm light on the foreground helps the blue of the sky appear that much more pronounced and beautiful. I’ve even used car taillights, and they add this nice red color cast to the foreground and give this strange glow to it.
Arbabi: That point about the color of light is really important. Light impacts how we see color. When you photograph a pink flower in shade, part of the blue shift that happens in shade shifts the pink and it desaturates the color. So, you can either wait for the sunlight to illuminate that area or you can add flash because direct light will add vibrancy and saturation. Colors will change based on the time of the day with the light becoming either cooler or warmer. It’s important information to know and understand.
All that knowledge is great, but don’t you see a lot of images in which people are overthinking the lighting?
Arbabi: Often, people think that they have to light their subject and that’s not necessarily the case. Think of a silhouetted hiker against a brightly lit scene. You are emphasizing shape and form against a backdrop of a saturated color of sky or mountain range. You don’t have to light your subjects to create a photograph in an interesting way. You can use the light around the subject to provide a hint of what’s going on, and often, those are some of the most dramatic images.
Is there such a thing as bad light and what benefit is there to shooting under those conditions anyway?
Wu: It’s not necessarily bad light as it is the quality of the light. One situationwhere the quality of the light is bad is high-contrast light where the scene has strong shadows. Yet that same light can be a great light when you have a clearly defined subject where the shadows help reveal the texture or shape of the subject.
Arbabi: For the most part, for every type of light there is, I have found ways to work in that light. It’s an often-repeated phrase, but it’s true: If you want great light, you just have to wait because at some point the light is going to get better. It’s not about it being bad light, but being the kind of light that you don’t want or are hoping not to have to work in because it doesn’t favor your subject.
Wu: If it’s a sunny day, and I want a softer feel to the shot, the light doesn’t work for that scene at that particular time, but hopefully, I can come back when the light is what I want. With landscape and nature photography, without compelling light, it won’t look interesting. It will make or break an image.
Arbabi: A photographer needs to look at a situation and figure out how to use the light that they have and think about whether they can add to it by using flash. It’s something you build. Light can always be different, and dramatic. Your subjects can look so different and they can never look the same just by the choice of lighting, and that’s one of the great things about photography. Learning how to use the light takes time, especially with learning how to take advantage of it in the best way.
Wu: When I see a subject that has been photographed with blotchy light, that makes me think that it’s bad light that was used for that particular subject. When you have a forest scene where there are little patches of light that are really going nowhere and you don’t know what you should be looking at, that’s a situation where the light is bad for that subject at that time.
Arbabi: And it’s good to be forced to shoot under bad light and make mistakes. A great way to learn about light is learning from those mistakes and discovering why it didn’t work for you.
What’s a good piece of advice for photographers who want to develop a better understanding of light.
Arbabi: Limit your variables and just try one thing and do it over and over again until it’s perfect. That’s the fastest and most efficient way to learn what works best. If you’re changing too many things like settings, flash position, and lenses, you’ll never figure out how to do it well.
Wu: Pay attention to the shadows because you can create a photograph of just the shadows themselves. When you do, you’re incorporating space and considering composition and the importance of shape and line, rather than just documenting the subject.
This post featured the thoughts and opinions of Sean Arbabi, adventure photographer and Jennifer Wu, outdoor photographer and Canon Explorer of Light. You can find out more from them by checking out their websites, or perhaps follow the author of this post, Ibarionex Perello and see who he is talking to next. If you were inspired by Jennifer Wu’s work in the stars, check out her class on KelbyOne “Photographing the Stars, Moon, and Milky Way“